The History of Our Parish
In early 1978, this church was born as the dream of a small group of individuals. These people were residents of the East Bay, and members of St. Nicholas Church in San Francisco. This committed and energetic group, who continued as active members of St. Nicholas for a substantial period of time, gave of their time and resources to achieve this dream. In April 1978, the Mission of St. John the Evangelist was officially established. The mission was served early on by Fr. James McLuckie, Fr. John Birch, and Fr. George George. This Mission has grown and changed over the years to become the Christian home and place of worship that we know and love today.
The first “Mission Council,” established in 1978, was chaired by Ron Nicola, with Helen Nicola as Treasurer, George Adranly as Vice-Chair, and Rose Cava as Secretary. Other initial members were Norman Abood, Bill Ezzy, Fernando Halaby, Katie Muna, Mary Romley, and Al Saloom. Under this council’s guidance, services were held at the Masonic Temple in Orinda, with parishioners setting up chairs and iconostasis, stored in a closet, each Sunday before liturgy. George Adranly, Bill Hand and Maha Adranly assumed the early responsibilities for organizing the choir. Early Church School classes -taught by Tom Beter, Suheila Halaby, and Najat Nicola, among others - were held in the adjacent social hall. This hail doubled as our “Coffee Hour” gathering place following Divine Liturgy.
Many of the organizations that constitute this Parish today were first started in 1978 and 1979 as Mission organizations. Our ladies’ organizations immediately began to provide the unique support that continues today. Already in existence at start-up was the East Bay Ladies’ Auxiliary, an East Bay “branch” of St. Nicholas Church in San Francisco. While these women continued their hard work to support the new Mission, an affiliated group, known as Contra Meda Ladies, also began by 1980. SOYO was initiated as well, and even had its first snow trip in March of 1979. Men’s Fellowship started up in 1979, and sponsored the first Parish Picnic in September of 1980. At about this time, Fr. Elias Bitar began to serve as Priest to the Parish. In January of 1981, St. John the Evangelist Church had its first Council meeting.
Men’s Fellowship wasted no time in gearing up. The first annual Golf Tournament, sponsored by Men’s Fellowship to raise funds for a Building Fund, was held in July of 1981. This wonderful event, eagerly anticipated each year, has continued to be a successful part of our parish activities. Two other events emphasizing fellowship ,as well as fund-raising, were initiated the following year: our first annual Crab Feed, as well as our first Pot of Gold Dinner.
St. John the Evangelist and its SOYO jumped whole-heartedly into the spiritual and organizational life of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. In 980, the parish hosted its first SOYO delegates’ meeting. Our humble place of worship at the Masonic Lodge was the site of the blessing of our own Sub-Deacon, Najeeb Adranly in March 1982. As early as 1983, we welcomed the Western Region Parish Life Conference to the East Bay. In a burst of energy and enthusiasm, our young church hosted parishioners from churches up and down the West Coast.
While these many activities were being planned and initiated, the search for a permanent church home was ongoing. Bill Ezzy initially chaired the Permanent Location Committee; he was later joined by many other able participants, including Steve Belavich, Jim Dudum and Fernando Halaby. After a long search, and much hard work, our present site on Moraga Way in Orinda was purchased in 1984. Our parish community looked forward to making this our spiritual home.
Although Fr. Elias Bitar had looked forward with great anticipation to our new home, he didn’t have very long there, as he was called to serve elsewhere in 1985. The parish welcomed Fr. Tom Ruffin to our midst. Fall of 1985 saw the parish hosting its first Middle Eastern Food Festival on the church grounds, a tradition that was recently reinstated. That year also saw the first of two SOYO-sponsored New Year’s Eve Dinner Dances.
As the parish matured, activities that had been new became traditions, while other activities were instituted as the age of parishioners dictated. Autumn of 1986 saw the first Pumpkin Patch, a family and community-centered event. Fr. Ruffin was called to another parish in 1987, and Fr. Antony Hughes and his young family were ushered in. Before we knew it, our “new” parish was celebrating its 10th Anniversary in 1988. Also that year, a decision was made to begin preparations to operate a Preschool and Day Care Center on church grounds. This would better utilize our facility, as well as provide a needed community service. Nabil and Erica Garas initially spearheaded this effort, with help in planning and implementing needed facility alterations provided by Fernando Halaby and Jack Mahshi. Many, many individuals, including Alex Ghantous and John McClintic, worked together with this group to make the needed physical changes and obtain necessary governmental permits. The St. John Preschool and Day Care Center opened its doors in August 1989.
Summer of 1989 also saw the presentation of our preliminary Master Plan for the ultimate development of our church sanctuary and parish hall. The parish approved the Plan, in concept, later in the year. Fund-raising efforts for our Building Fund then began in earnest.
With the passage of the years, many spiritual activities grace the pages of our church history. Our parish sponsored a KERYGMA concert, bringing popular music about the love and beauty in our Faith to our members and neighbors. Another special event was the "Day of Champions" youth rally led by Fr. Hopko. One hundred teens and adults attended this inspirational day. Beginning in 1992, the Contra Meda Ladies have sponsored an annual “St. John’s Ladies Lenten Retreat and Luncheon,” providing a day of spiritual respite for the women in our community, as well as raising funds for the annual AOCWNA charity. The parish, in conjunction with other Orthodox parishes in the area, has also sponsored an annual summer camp. Church camp provides a week of spiritual enrichment and fun for our young people, in a safe and wholesome environment.
Fr. Antony was called to serve elsewhere in 1992, and our next pastor, Fr. Emile Hanna arrived to further lead our community. Our many efforts to bolster our Building Fund were rewarded that year when we were able to pay off the remaining mortgage on our property. From that point on, our efforts would redouble toward making our church home what we have all hoped it would be. Our “Middle Eastern Festival” was resurrected in new form in 1993, with hopes of raising funds to build our dream, and increase community awareness of our parish. Our festival has become an annual community event.
In 1999, we completed construction of an multi-purpose meeting and office building. This project completes a major milestone in our master plan for the development of our parish grounds. Our pastor, his secretary and our daycare director will have permanent offices in this building. In addition, meeting space is available for our teens and the organizations of our parishes to hold meetings and small events. We anticipate the next phase of our building program, the construction of a new Church to support the growing spiritual needs of our parish.
Our contact with other local churches and community groups has increased, in part, as a result of outreach events such as the annual Middle Eastern Festival and in part, because of the need to work with local churches to achieve our goals of creating a beautiful and serviceable parish facility. Our efforts at community outreach culminated recently in a joint Thanksgiving Service with other Moraga Way churches. St. John's choir and clergy played an important role in this service. We have truly "arrived" as vital, committed Orthodox Christian members of our community.
In 2002, Fr. Emile retired and Fr. Kevin Scherer was assigned to lead our community as pastor. Fr. Kevin's focus was to reintroduce the historic purpose of the parish community: evangelism, apostolic teaching, fellowship, liturgical worship, and service. Several programs such as our small groups teaching ministry, our Wednesday morning Men's study group, several short term missions programs, and many other activies can be directly attributed to our focusing on this historic objectives of God's Holy Church.
During the time between 2002 and 2005, we were able to plan and implement a significant remodeling project within our sanctuary. We expanded our seating capacity, replaced our pews and carpet, added much more iconography and added an elevator to allow for handicap access to the Church.
In 2006, Fr. Kevin left to lead the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a college outreach under the direction of SCOBA. Our new pastor, Fr. George Washburn was no stranger to St. John. Fr. George was an associate pastor at St. Peter and Paul Church in Ben Lomond for several years, and had served with us at St. John on several occasions. We look forward to the future and the opportunity it brings for us to serve the Lord in the Orinda community.